If you've spent any time watching figure skating on television, you know the routine: The music stops and the skater glides off the ice, ambles over to the “kiss and cry” area to talk to the coaches, waves to fans and waits for the judges to tally the scores.
And unless you're a skating expert, this is probably where you get confused.
A skater who made several tumbles onto the ice gets seemingly high marks. Ones who seemed to have a flawless routine and drew thunderous applause get low scores.
Plus, what's the deal with all of these complicated numbers? (Last year's ladies gold medalist, Ashley Wagner, scored a total of 187.02 points at nationals.) What happened to the days when 6.0 was a perfect score?
“It can be hard to understand,” acknowledges Wendy Enzmann, a judging veteran who served as chief referee at last year's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif.
Mastering the nuances of the International Judging System, the one implemented in the U.S. in 2005, following a scoring controversy at the 2002 Winter Olympics can take years. But Enzmann said even casual fans can pick up on more of the intrigue on the ice if they know the basics.
Scores are determined by two sets of officials.
Three members of a five-person technical panel evaluate each element of a skater's program, determining what moves a skater completes, but not how well he or she performed them. Particular types of jumps and spins have different point values, based on their degree of difficulty.
A separate, nine-member judging panel then makes decisions about how well the skater performed each of those parts of a program, plus how a skater did on things like choreography and the transitions between jumps or spins.
All of that happens quickly, typically in real time. The technical panel can replay video of a skater's program, but the entire panel is typically expected to have skaters' scores ready within 90 seconds after the music stops.
The system rewards skaters who can take big risks, so long as they can follow through. A successful quadruple jump, for example, could go a long way toward a high score. But trying a tough move and failing can lead to big deductions even if failing means still successfully landing a triple instead of a quad or a double instead of a triple.
“To somebody watching the sport it may not look like a mistake, but it's probably worse than falling down, in the end,” Enzmann said.
But it's not just about perfect landings on every jump. Skaters are also graded on their spins, footwork and choreography. Enzmann said that's boosted the level of artistry among many competitors because under the old 6.0 judging system, those elements weren't assigned particular point values.
The old system also ranked skaters against each other. The new ratings are about how each skater performs as an individual.
After a few years of sorting the ins and outs of the International Judging System, Enzmann, who will serve on the technical panel in Omaha, said it's now well-understood by anyone who has spent time in the sport.
“The skaters that are competing today have grown up with the system.”